Hypersonic Research Funding Skyrockets as DOD Looks to Push Capability to the Field

The government’s 70 hypersonics programs—ranging from enabling technology efforts to all-up prototyping projects—are expected to cost $15 billion from 2015 through 2024, and several have sharply exceeded cost estimates, the Government Accountability Office reported.

Hypersonic research funding grew 740 percent, government-wide, between 2015 and 2020. Production costs have not yet been developed, the agency said, though it predicts that hypersonics spending will decline in the next few years, hovering at just over $2 billion annually, and basic development will be eclipsed by spending on production.

The Air Force’s AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) “experienced a nearly 40 percent increase in its estimated total cost within its first year,” according to the report, which did not identify dollar amounts. The budget estimate for the Navy’s Conventional Prompt Global Strike program also “almost doubled” from fiscal 2019 to 2020. The Pentagon told GAO it has not taken any “mitigation” action on two programs that busted their cost estimates because they were “due to unique factors not likely to occur again” and that it has “accepted this risk and continued development at the higher estimates” because of the programs’ urgency.

The report also said that hypersonics spending estimates are fraught because of the newness of the technology, the urgency of fielding it, and extreme uncertainty about program schedules, which the services all told GAO are highly “ambitious.” There’s also limited planning going on for how the Pentagon will sustain its hypersonic systems once it has them, the audit agency said.  

The GAO says the Pentagon’s hypersonics enterprise is vast and clear lines of responsibility are needed, noting the report is a sanitized version of one it completed in January, with “sensitive” information omitted.

The Pentagon concurred with the recommendation, saying it has “already taken many actions” to define and document its hypersonics strategy, and agrees that “a more formal documentation of the roles, responsibilities, and authorities of the leadership positions” and organizations in DOD working on hypersonics “would add clarity, efficiency, and robustness to our efforts.”

The Pentagon noted that its hypersonics lead, Michael White, has created an “integrated overarching vision and strategy” for hypersonics development across the Department of Defense. One of the coordinating organizations is the new Joint Hypersonics Transition Office. The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act also placed “into statute” White’s authorities as the principal director of hypersonics, and mandates a point person at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and at various intelligence organizations with which he’ll coordinate.

The GAO pegged the Navy as having the biggest share of hypersonics money from 2015-2024, with $6.2 billion spent or planned. The Air Force ranks next, with $3.6 billion, followed by the OSD, Army, and DARPA, all with about $1.5 billion. The Missile Defense Agency’s share of the hypersonics pie over the decade will have been about $480 million.

Of the 70 programs, 29 are “initial technology development” areas such as “aerodynamics, materials, propulsion, chemistry, and simulations.” Another 36 are “advanced development” programs building hypersonic components, “field experiments,” and or real/simulated tests. Among the 36, 15 are being conducted by DARPA and the MDA.

The final five, which are the largest, are in “product development,” the GAO said, including “offensive prototpes” being created by Air Force, Army, and Navy. “Currently, no hypersonic efforts are in production,” the report noted.

Product development funding started in 2018 and doubled in 2019 and 2020, respectively, funded at about $1.5 billion in 2020. The GAO expects that this category will roughly level off at about $1.8 billion a year from 2021 to 2023, and then decline, as actual production takes over. Technology development peaked in 2019 at about $1.4 billion, and is expected to decline steadily to about $500 million by 2024, GAO forecast.

The four missile projects underway account for about 56 percent of government hypersonics spending from 2015-2024, the GAO said. Of the 70 hypersonics projects, 12 are for defenses against hypersonic systems, and the GAO noted that Congress added $100 million to the fiscal 2020 budget for this work.

The ARRW is expected to deliver a usable capability in 2022, while the Army’s Long Range Hypersonic Weapon is supposed to be available in 2023 and the Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike weapon is slated to have a usable capability in 2025.

The schedules are all likely to slip, though, the GAO said, noting that the ARRW “experienced a cascading delay of all four of its planned flight tests,” which has put “additional pressure” on an in-service date of 2022. The ARRW depends on the DARPA Tactical Boost Glide program, which “experienced a delay of almost one year,” though the Air Force told the GAO the ARRW schedule has only slipped four months.

The Army told GAO “they recognized that not even [its] particular streamlined approach could support their goal of achieving a limited operational capability” with the Long Range Hypersonic Weapon by fiscal 2023. Structuring it as an advanced technology, or prototyping effort, though, rather than as a major system development, will give the program “greater flexibility.”

Because the Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike program is so intertwined with the Army’s effort, it’s likely to slip, as well, the GAO said.

While all the services said they’ve engaged their sustainment branches in the early stages of hypersonic weapon development, no sustainment plans have been put in place yet, the GAO reported. This is also due to the fact that the early capabilities the service will field will likely differ from the final versions, so a sustainment plan may be premature. Without a plan, though, cost estimating can’t happen. The GAO noted that sustainment costs typically are the lion’s share of a program’s ultimate cost.

While the services acknowledged schedule risks, they said the risk was “justified by the high priority” the Pentagon leadership puts on their programs, and getting a hypersonic capability “at the earliest possible date,” the GAO said.

The Pentagon also reported various efforts it’s making with university consortia and other sources to develop the “talent” needed to build the hypersonics enterprise, GAO said, while also noting a shortage of wind tunnels and test ranges for refinement of hypersonic systems.

Air Force Magazine will dig deeper into the issues raised by the GAO in the April print issue, which will be available soon.